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Research Labs and Rehearsal Rooms: Shared Lessons for Dramatists and Engineers

At first glance, it may not seem like engineers and stage designers have much in common. But while their goals are different, the two disciplines actually have much to learn from one another, said Todd Rosenthal, a Tony Award-winner and associate professor of theatre at Northwestern University.

“There are similarities in the process of designing for the stage, designing at a school of engineering, or designing for industrial design,” Rosenthal told an audience of McCormick students and professors at a Dean’s Seminar Series lecture on Wednesday. “There is a very distinct common thread.”

It boils down to a simple tenet, Rosenthal said: less is more. “As you start pulling stuff away, (the design) becomes better. It always becomes better,” Rosenthal said. “You distill it down to what is really needed.”

Todd RosenthalIn his presentation, “The Perfect Chair: Simplified Realism in Theatrical Design,” Rosenthal gave a primer in theatrical design: how the field has evolved throughout history; how the design process evolves from paper to stage; and how a set must provide actors and audiences the means to access the world of a play – the so-called “perfect chair.”

A respected stage designer in the United States and abroad, Rosenthal won a Tony Award in 2008 for his Broadway design of August: Osage County. His work has been honored with the Michael Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration, the Los Angeles Times Stage Alliance Ovation Award, the Los Angeles Backstage Garland Award, and the Joseph Jefferson Award, among others.

Rosenthal recently founded a company that designs museum exhibits; among his designs is an exhibit for the MythBusters at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. “We’ve found common ground with these guys,” Rosenthal says. “They’re engineers and they design apparatuses that dispute myths, but they’re also artists.”

McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino, who hosted Wednesday’s event, noted that engineers can benefit immensely by exposure to other design fields, such as theatre.

“It’s really good to see how other people work, because they operate with a completely different set of constraints,” Ottino said. “That enriches us all.”